Sunday, July 27, 2014

"Winning" the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix

Kickoff Rally

Back in the day I participated in a lot of road rallies. In October 1962 the Boy Scouts of America's magazine Boys Life ran an article entitled "Car Rally", by Bob Stewart. The article described the TSD (Time-Speed-Distance) rally where cars compete against other cars to follow a (usually confusing) course on public roads in exactly the correct time. The cars are (usually) started a minute apart and are given a series of instructions such as "left at barn" and "commence average speed of 35mph". Along the way there are checkpoints where the car's arrival is timed. For each 1/100th of a minute the car is early or late the team is penalized a point. So if the car was 50/100ths of a minute early at one checkpoint and 95/100ths of a minute late at the next it will have accumulated 145 points. The object is to arrive at the rally's endpoint with the fewest points. The event takes both driving skills and navigation skills including the ability to both stay on course and on time.

A few years after reading the article, and shortly after receiving my license I noticed an advertisement for a TSD rally in the classifieds section of the Chicago Tribune. Since it was beginning a few miles from my house my friend John Earp and I decided to watch the start. There was not much to see at the start of a rally and we ended up signing up, knowing only what I had read in Boys Life two years previously. In particular we did not realize that we were signing up for a local championship rally of well over 200 miles, mostly in southern Wisconsin, with nine checkpoints. After traipsing up and down paved and unpaved roads throughout the region, frequently getting lost, we finally found our way to the finish line at a restaurant in Waukegan, Illinois some 12 hours later -- having not encountered a single one of the nine checkpoints! (They only stay open for a set amount of time after the last car is due.) We actually did not finish in last place because two other cars were marked "DNF" for "did not finish".
Something we did not see on our first road rally
We learned that one of our rookie mistakes was to not calibrate our odometer readings to that of the car used to lay out the rally course. Since odometers in each car vary and even the odometer in the same car may vary from time to time due to tire pressures, etc., it is important to know, for instance, that when the rallymaster sees 1.11 miles on his odometer, you might see 1.20 miles on your odometer. Every rally includes a odometer calibration zone to accomplish this.

Notice that I gave the miles above to the nearest 1/100th mile while cars generally have odometers that read to the nearest 1/10th mile. One can estimate an extra digit, or one can buy an add-on odometer for ones car. I took the latter course.
A Halda Tripmaster Odometer
The Halda Tripmaster could even be ordered with special gear sets so that the rallyist did not have to do calculations during the rally. (Just calculate the correction factor and put the proper gears in the odometer and it will read exactly what the layout car's odometer read.) At the time I did not have the money to purchase the gear kit and so did without. The knob in the center has three positions. In the position shown the odometer was turned off. When pointed to the "+" it would add miles (the usual mode), and when pointed to the "-" it would subtract miles (useful when backtracking after having gone off course.) By the way, you'll often see the name Halda on taxi meters. This was just an offshoot business for them. A additional very useful tool for the serious rallyist at the time was the Curta Calculator which made precise time-speed-distance calculations easier when used properly.
A Curta Calculator -- also called the "peppermill", mine was stolen out of my office when I was in grad school
We went on to participate in a fair number of rallies until we graduated high school and went off to college. I would rally sporadically when I was home for the summer but did not have a car at school until  I was a junior and don't recall doing much until after I graduated (but it sure was fun grinding away (literally) on the my digital calculator in the mid-60's when others were reading 6 significant digits off of their slide rules.) :) I know for sure that once I started graduate school I began to rally again, usually with my friends and fellow graduate students Larry Flon or Mario Barbacci as my navigator.

From 1970 to the early 1990s with a brief gap when I moved away from Pittsburgh for six years, rallying was a pretty regular activity for me. There were several local groups that offered road rallies. The one I was most active with still exists today, The misnamed (or at least mis-located) Blue Ridge Mountain Sports Car Club still runs near monthly rallies though I have not participated in years.  Also offering an occasional rally was (and is) the Steel Cities Region of the Sports Car Club of America. We used to travel to the Cleveland area to participate in rallies run by the Tuscarawas Valley Touring Club. There was also the North Hills Sports Car Club and the South Hills Sports Car Club, but the energy crisis of the late 70's and early 80's pretty much knocked them out.

Mario and I ran a few rallies ourselves over the years, one of which was for Learning Unlimited, a Pittsburgh area company that offered courses on all sorts of subjects back in the 1980s. At the time we both were working for the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon and there were some grad students in the School of Computer Science that also became interested. Two, Barb Staudt-Lerner and Rick Lerner joined with us to write a guide to rallying that you can still find lurking (in various forms) on the web.

So why did we stop? Three main reasons. The first is that I simply ran out of time in my life to do it after I started ConJelCo and got interested in other things. The second is that Mario wasn't always available to navigate for me. I started taking my miniature schnauzer Casey along as my navigator (she became known as "Navidog") and would have continued like that except for the third reason. It stopped being as much fun for us as it once was -- but not for the reason you probably think.
Approved for Class B

When we started rallying we participated in the so-called "tourist" or "unequipped" or "seat-of-the-pants" class. In this class you were allowed a pencil and paper for calculating mileages, average speeds, etc. I can't remember if we were allowed the use of the Halda odometer or not, but if we weren't we didn't. This was a lot of fun because we could pretty much guesstimate if we were on time, etc and have a shot at winning. The problem was that we became too good and kept winning this class and were asked to move up to Class B. That was a non-starter for us because Class B allowed the use of calculators or slide rules, but nothing fancier, and was too much work. We ended up buying a rally computer (after trying to design one ourselves) and moving up to Class A. This was actually easier than Class B in terms of keeping on time, but we seldom won against the others with computers. Winning isn't the only reason to compete or course (but it's a damn good one), but we also found that we weren't enjoying rallying at this level and slowly reduced our level of participation.
Our rally computer looked something like this

The Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix Kickoff Rally

So what does this all have to do with the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix?

In 1983 the first Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix was held in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park. The venue is nearly perfect with a golf course to house the antique and vintage car show and hospitality tents, and winding roads (see map) to host the race.
The Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix Course
The week leading up to the PVGP is full of related events including car shows around the city, and a Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix Kickoff Rally on the weekend before. On July 17, 1988, Mario and I decided, on a whim, to enter the rally. My "vintage" car was a 1984 Audi 4000 equipped with the computer pictured above. The rally began near the corner of Fifth and Craig in Pittsburgh, coincidentally around the corner from my office. Fifty-four cars entered. Some were truly vintage and in gorgeous condition. Particularly the red Ford Fairlane V8 convertible driven by soon-to-become friend Patty Calderone. Some were even less vintage than my Audi.

The course for the rally ran from Fifth and Craig through Shadyside, the Fox Chapel area, downtown, and eventually ended back where it started. The average speed was about 20 miles an hour, and instead of being timed to the nearest 1/100th of a minute, it was timed to the nearest 10 seconds. There were also questions to answer about things along the route, with 10 point penalties for a wrong answer.

Mario and I somehow managed to come in first with a score of zero. Our nearest competitor came in with 13 points, or somewhat over two minutes of error. By this time I am sure you can understand the reason why "winning" is in quotes in the article. We were running seat-of-the-pants rally in a Class A car. Somehow I have never regretted it.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Article from July 18, 1988


  1. Chuck -- I'd love to know more about the Tuscarawas Valley Touring Club. I have a fiberglass special (built on a '51 Ford chassis), that was designed and built by Ben Shoemaker. I believe he was once the president of the TVTC. The club seems to have disappeared sometime after 2000, and I haven't been able to find anyone who was a member. (This would have been in the 1960s.)

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